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How to Fix American Schools

In his message to the joint session of Congress, President Trump declared that “education is the civil rights issue of our time.” This was no hyperbolic Trumpian declaration for the Twitterverse. It’s the truth.

American schools, as a whole, are mediocre at best [1]—ranking near the bottom of the developed world. Thirty years of rhetoric about reform—whether by spending more money or by changing curricula—have had no impact. American educational attainment is stagnant, at best, and likely regressing [2].

At what point do we admit that our system simply isn’t working, and that no amount of additional funding will fix it?

The facts are damning. We spend more per pupil per year than all but a few countries in the world. Our outcomes, in the best years, are middling. By any objective measure—graduation rates, ACT and SAT scores, dropout rates—increased spending has had no effect.

Here in Texas, where the “Texas Model” of low regulation and taxation has spurred several years of economic and population growth, a casual observer might assume that the Lone Star State is immune from those national trends. In fact, those trends are pervasive here, threatening the sustainability of Texas’s well-earned reputation as the modern land of opportunity.

And yet, defenders of the status quo, both nationally and in Texas, clamor for more money. This, in spite of the fact that barely fifty cents of every education dollar makes it to the classroom [3].

Thus, the “spend more money for students” claim is a canard. Perpetuating “the system” has become more important than ensuring that every single student has equal access to the best educational opportunities available.

This disparity is acute, if not tragic, in our urban areas. The achievement gap between urban and suburban students stubbornly persists, inoculated against innovation by those heavily invested in the system as a source of professional and political patronage.

How can we fix this problem?

The first step is for the federal government to decrease its role. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will have to resist the natural temptation for conservatives, when in power, to correct federal overreach in education with more federal action. Centralized power in Washington must be trimmed, if not shattered, to refocus our attention and our dollars on students.

But that initial step will require both states and parents to seize the role that is properly theirs. For too long, greased by the intoxicating promise of more federal money, states have ceded ground to Washington. Not coincidentally, parents have seen their own control over their children’s education erode during that time, as the behemoth educracy coalesces first in school districts, then in state capitals, and ultimately, in the nation’s capital.     

The Texas legislature, which meets only biennially, has an opportunity this year to take the lead. Given that 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren are in Texas, bold reform can not only help them, but also set in motion innovations that will ripple across the nation.

Lone Star lawmakers are rightly feeling the pressure to take action. The same trends that beset American education—especially in urban areas—beset Texas.

Consider, for example, one of the most basic indicators of educational attainment—the high school diploma. In the United States as a whole, the percentage of people without a high school diploma is 14 percent. There are 28 metro areas where that percentage is higher. Six of them—Dallas (25.8 percent), Houston (24.6 percent), El Paso (23.6 percent), Fort Worth (20.1 percent), San Antonio (19.3 percent), and Arlington (15.7 percent)—are in Texas. Given that secondary school enrollment in those cities is 920,000, our reform ideas ought to be focused on them.

To address that problem, some Texas lawmakers have introduced legislation that would create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), the newest vehicle of parental choice in education. The Texas ESA would operate much like a health savings account. Given that state funding for education follows each child—not the system—the state allotment for each student would be placed in a state-operated account. Parents could then draw from that account to pay for private school tuition, special-needs services, and other approved resources.

Though schoolchildren all across Texas would benefit, those in urban areas would be helped the most, both directly and indirectly. The direct benefit, of course, would be for those students whose parents feel trapped by zip code discrimination—the antiquated notion that students ought to attend schools in their neighborhood.

The indirect benefit, as our research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation shows, is that even for students who remain in “the system,” they would see improved education: once opt-in rates for school-choice programs reach a tipping point, public school districts respond by innovating and addressing problems.

Even still, there are critics. The usual suspects—teachers’ unions, superintendents’ groups, and school board associations—defend the status quo by rote. The result is that their rhetoric focuses on “the system’s money” rather than what is best for children.

Organized support for school choice in Texas—with full-throated endorsements by the governor and lieutenant governor—have defenders of the system on high alert.

Reformers have the high ground. Opponents of innovation are on the wrong side of history, defending an antiquated system whose goal of self-perpetuation has produced an obstacle to the flourishing of young people entrusted to it. Giving families, especially those of modest means, a vehicle for selecting a better option is not only good policy, but a matter of justice. Hence, the president was correct in identifying this effort as a civil rights struggle.

After several decades of funding nothing more than mediocrity, what do we—and our schoolchildren—have to lose from innovation?

Kevin D. Roberts, Ph.D., is a longtime educator and is Executive Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "How to Fix American Schools"

#1 Comment By Winston On March 16, 2017 @ 12:53 am

Game over already. Majority of poor children in public schools getting dismal education. When they enter workforce, US becomes first poor rich country.

#2 Comment By John Fargo On March 16, 2017 @ 2:18 am

Just how do you propose returning control to the states? Block grants always result in budget reduction over time and states are expected to make up the declining revenue themselves; some do, most don’t. Close the Department of Education? It is rural schools not inner cities that will suffer the most. Without federal funding and oversight, rural school will shutter as the states are forced to prioritize their budgets for the largest number of people. We’ll be right back to the 50s. The priority for all education should always be to teach children how to think and not what to think as done in the past.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On March 16, 2017 @ 8:34 am

The Asian students go to those same public schools and do quite well. The schools are important, but the parents are more important. You have to make them do their homework, quiz them, and get involved. You cannot subcontract your children’s education to the teachers.

#4 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On March 16, 2017 @ 11:25 am

The focus of schools stopped being learning and started being social engineering. When low performing students don’t improve, the people – who have about 50 years tied up in this experiment – try another angle. How about focusing on learning and teaching and admit that when God passed out brains he was more generous to some than others?

#5 Comment By Interguru On March 16, 2017 @ 11:47 am

Our problems is not our schools, it is child poverty. Very few schools have the strong leadership need to overcome the deficiencies created in households which lack either or financial or cultural resources to raise toddlers well.

#6 Comment By Mark On March 16, 2017 @ 11:48 am

Block grants are marvellous!

Marvellous opportunities for graft and redirection of funds to political patrons, that is.

#7 Comment By David On March 16, 2017 @ 12:00 pm

Silly and tired; I expect more from TAC. The problem is not the evil statist monopolist bureaucrats, although they are far from perfect. The long term history of public education is that the larger political system saddles it with responsibilities that the rest of the government and society won’t touch. The teachers and administrators, being good team players with missionary zeal, take up the challenge, the suckers. International competitive advantage is only the latest. I recall racial integration in the 70s; earlier generations of schoolteachers were responsible for mainstreaming immmigrants. And so on, and on, and on. A fine American institution is breaking under the burden.

No, the real problem is not the professional educators, it’s the PARENTS, and Dr. Roberts should know that. It’s been the major research finding for decades. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

Just another institutional reform (e.g. ESAs or other Texas market shenanigans) won’t do a damn thing about families that don’t care about education and probably never did. A realist solution must admit that this will not change.

My suggestion is to expel indifferent or disruptive students more readily, reduce the age of truancy, and find some other institution to deal with all the children who are screwing up learning for everyone else.

#8 Comment By Nelson On March 16, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

It’s a start, but the article doesn’t address certain obstacles. For one, the cost of private schools is high but the author doesn’t claim the subsidy would cover the entire cost. Transportation is not addressed. Most poor people rely on busses but there is no guarantee of either school or public busses from the students’ homes to the private schools. Another thing unaddressed is the home environments, many of which are unconductive to studying at home and libraries may not be open late enough.

#9 Comment By Zachary Day On March 16, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

I think you miss the huge elephant in the room on this one. As someone taking education courses right now, I can tell you teacher education is the problem. Uneducated teachers cannot educate anyone. Teaching as a field is so full of meaningless jargon, illogical conclusions based upon faulty premises taken as dogmatic truths, that it is a wonder any children in the U.S. learn anything. The actual ends of education are lost in endless talk of methodology and reform. Has anyone ever taken the time to consider that this might be part of the problem?

#10 Comment By Kurt Gayle On March 16, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

As Kevin Roberts points out 14% of the total US population ages 25 and older is without a high school diploma.

However, for U.S. Hispanics ages 25 and older the share without a high school diploma is more than double the US average — it is 38%.

Mr. Roberts says that Dallas and Houston have high percentages of adults without a high school degree – 25.8% and 24.6%, respectively – but that is in no small part because 46% of Dallas Hispanics and 44% of Houston Hispanics are without high school diplomas.


Any attempt “to fix American schools” must examine the impact of high rates of legal and illegal immigration upon American educational results.

#11 Comment By John_M On March 16, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

The feds aren’t the source of failure in the American schools and getting the feds out of it won’t help. Indeed, the data we have shows that the charter / private school approach is not demonstrably better. I have my problem with Common Core – but because it sets too low a standard. In general, the state’s expectations are too low and limit the opportunities available to their students. People move – creating problems when students switch schools: I and my family have lived in California, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Utah, Washington D.C., and Washington – and the schools are different in all of them. But when you get to the University level, the expectations in Science, Math, and Engineering programs are all largely the same (by the time you get to graduate school they are the same worldwide). Work backwards from the departmental requirements and you have your school requirements for your college track. Work backwards from the requirements for technical colleges and you have your vocational track requirements.

All too often states and districts adjust their standards to their budget and claim everything is good, rather than admit that they are falling short.

The children of professional parents can be less impacted by school limitations because the parents will supplement or replace the school’s lessons. I did. I drove my daughter’s education in middle and high school. She dropped out after 10th grade – doing early admission to a local university. She is now completing her masters in structural engineering (and will receive her degree before she turns 21).

#12 Comment By Selvar On March 16, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

There is nothing to fix one way or another. The U.S. has academic outcomes that are in line with its racial demographics. Upper class blacks actually do worse on the SAT than working class whites. Since Taxes has a large (and young) Hispanic population, it is highly unlikely that it can generate a vast improvement in scholastic achievement among its students, regardless of what reforms are implemented.

#13 Comment By Rosita On March 16, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

Have to agree with Uncle Billy 10000 percent though I’m also intrigued by argument for school choice to escape zip code discrimination. Would love to hear more on this.

#14 Comment By ControlE On March 16, 2017 @ 5:32 pm

I like the idea of the states setting aside the funding for each individual student instead of issuing one bulk payment to the school systems.

That said, I don’t think simply helping people pay the tuition to private schools is suddenly going to make things better. For one, private schools have better ratings because they are selective with who they accept. It isn’t that they do things better, it is that they only accept the better students. So a kid who has struggled with failing classed up until the 6th grade isn’t suddenly going to be welcomed into St. Angus Prep with open arms, even if his mom can now afford the tuition.

And if the private schools began to lessen their acceptance standards, then they would slowly but surely begin to see the same issues public schools now face.

The problem with education in America is that we don’t force participation and effort like some Asian systems; and we don’t make the experience fun and engaging like some European systems. I doubt we ever start flogging kids for failing math tests… but it probably wouldn’t hurt to check out the systems they use in Norway and Germany.

#15 Comment By CrossTieWalker On March 16, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

Let’s all agree here that not everyone can earn a PhD in particle physics. OK? Well, then, let’s run down the scale a bit. Can everyone attain a true baccalaureate level of education, with the rigor one might have found in 1925? It should seem obvious that not everyone is cut out for that kind of academic attainment. But how about a high school diploma (of the rigor one might have found in 1925)? It stands to reason that such a level of attainment will not be achievable by just anyone. In our blindly egalitarian push to grant everyone something like the good life enjoyed by the upper middle class, we have created a huge lumpenproletariat of frustrated and mis-emloyed people in this country. By failing to create the kinds of apprenticeships and vocational courses that actually would help some young people find jobs as plumbers, window-fitters, welders, etc., we end up with a shortage of such skilled workers and a surfeit of depressed young men playing video games all day long, living off of the women in their lives. And by importing an entirely new working class from across the Rio Grande, we guarantee that the least skilled among our native-born will be forced to sup on government cheese.
Let’s face it. Our schools will not be able to do their jobs when we keep trying to force them to educate people beyond the point at which those people wish to be educated or in subjects that bear no relevance to the actual aptitudes and skill sets of those people.
A full high school course should probably be directed toward those who would like to do such things as sell insurance or keep books, or perhaps coding of some sort. College then should be reserved for those who might actually be able to handle college-level work.
Anyway, what we are doing now is cruel and wasteful and horribly unimaginative. Tear it all down and rebuild.

#16 Comment By Jerry Miller On March 17, 2017 @ 7:48 am

As a 35 year teacher, I agree with Uncle Billy here.

But once Asian American families experience the full on assault to their existence (divorce, materialism, culture rot, etc.) they will go the same way, which is why the liberals continue creating social illness in this country; it becomes an excuse for more policy, funding, and government control.

The only solution lies in a more virtuous, Christian populace.

#17 Comment By Carl On March 17, 2017 @ 9:17 am

ESAs? Who are these people who like HSAs?HSAs suck! It’s a pain in the butt. If you want to give a discount on something, make it a write off. If you want to encourage savings, increase interest rates. Forcing people to put money into weirdo tax shelter vehicles like IRAs, HSAs, FSAs, and ESAs is just an annoying way to move money out of middle class pockets and into the finance industry.

#18 Comment By libertarian jerry On March 17, 2017 @ 9:54 am

I’ve been listening to the “public schools are failing argument”for decades. But decade after decade the situation,by and large,worsens. Most public schools today don’t educate but indoctrinate. Unfortunately its the students that suffer. The above comment about Asian students is correct. Parental involvement is crucial in the education of children.
With that said,I believe that the only answer to the educational problem is a complete separation of education from the State. This would take shape as an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would separate education from the State. Similar to the First Amendment that separates religion from the state by prohibiting the establishment of a state church. Only private,charity,voluntary or home schooling would be put into place. All Public schools,community colleges and state universities would be sold off. And what about the 15% or so of the population that were too “poor” to afford education? I’m sure that charity and religious establishments could fill in the gaps without the waste and corruption that is found in today’s educational/teachers union cartels.

#19 Comment By Howard On March 17, 2017 @ 10:48 am

The problem with public schools is that there is no longer a public. Seventy years ago, there was a “public”, in the sense of a shared consensus on what we wanted a high school graduate to be able to do. He needed to know enough math to be able to balance the books on a farm or in a small business. He needed to be able to read the newspapers, so that he would be informed enough about current affairs to cast an informed vote, and his Bible, because the Christian religion had both shaped the development of practically all American institutions and was still understood to have (at the very least) a civilizing effect on the individual. He needed to know the history and cultural background that gave rise to American society as it then existed.

All of that is gone today. Yes, the ceiling has been raised; a student can graduate from high school knowing calculus now, but he can more easily graduate without knowing how to subtract with borrowing, let alone long division. But the fact that education is compulsory, together with the immense power that a school system holds over students, has made it irresistible as a tool for indoctrination. The Left has obviously had the greatest success in seizing this tool, but dozens of groups covet it, and everything is an ideological battle now, with the kids as mere pawns. With no agreement on what kind of graduate we are hoping to produce, it should be no surprise that the results are disappointing.

A good friend of mine is a middle school teacher in Canada. Forget teaching the kids readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic; she is not even allowed to maintain the discipline in the classroom that will keep the kids, to say nothing of herself, safe. The kids there are being prepped by the system to be prison inmates with the best of self-images.

#20 Comment By Rosita On March 17, 2017 @ 11:43 am

“It’s a start, but the article doesn’t address certain obstacles. For one, the cost of private schools is high but the author doesn’t claim the subsidy would cover the entire cost.”

So I guess the argument that this author advances is incentivize parents especially those who are working class or working poor and still heavily engaged in their children’s education by allowing them choice out of failing schools by giving them a subsidy to cover some or most of the cost of a private school/charter/magnate. They will have to find other means to cover the rest; and this is still a far better outcome for those who are proactive than remaining in a failing public school. For those parents not engaged and not proactive; you are on your own.

I personally think there is merit in such an approach because I agree; parents are majority of the equation in guaranteeing educational attainment and accomplishment and the public education system cannot be expected to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Also agree on allocating an equal amount of resources to vocational training but even there it needs to be for the willing and able.

#21 Comment By Weldon On March 17, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

Are they broken, in any real concrete sense? US schools are in the top 20% in the world by most metrics I know of.

#22 Comment By Sexton Blake On March 17, 2017 @ 4:12 pm

One more time for the slow kids at the back: it is not about funding; it is not about ‘choice’, or selection, or how you structure education; it is not about money.

Pedagogy. It is about effective pedagogy.

#23 Comment By Henry Clemens On March 17, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

I recently put the question of the American public high school to one of the most successful public university college presidents (emeritus) in the country. In retirement, he has taken on the question in his home town, working to revive or reinforce some challenged public and private schools which serve minority groups. He and I are both in our 70’s. What has happened since our youth — when it wasn’t that good, but better than now?

One thing, the bright women who used to have two choices: teaching and nursing, now are doctors and lawyers, if not Indian chiefs. Many of those now teaching are intelligent and devoted, but many others are clearly not at the level of 50 years ago. This has particularly affected the black community. So, while money in one sense isn’t the answer, on the other hand it may well be a factor as part of making teaching a more attractive profession (and attractive to bright men, too) — assuming that the other obstacles can be addressed.

Another thing. Principals are a key element. Find a good one, or a potentially good one and support him. Find ways to increase their number.

Third: Local control sounds great, but if the locals do not know of what a good education consists? Certainly in my old home town, the schools are probably worse, but this isn’t because of lack of funds. My brother moved out when his daughter was fourteen — headed for the nearest big city with a good private school — which, by the way, still teaches Latin (which my public high school did 50 years ago, but has long since abandoned). Back home, most of the kids that finish high school can get into the state university system at one level or another, and are numerate and literate — according to the low standard that obtains. And the football and basketball teams do OK. So what is there to complain about?

And what about a general standard? By happenstance, my sons were partly schooled in the UK. The General Certificate of Secondary Education exams, taken at 16, are serious tests, set for a large number of subjects. English language, English literature, Biology, Physics, Chemistry (or a dual science test), Geography, Music, Religious Knowledge, History, various foreign languages, art and design, business studies, dance, drama, etc. Bright students will take at least seven or eight. If college-bound, they will study for two more years and take the Advanced Level Tests These are all graded independently and the GCSE results have a recognized value. If a federal role is an impossible concept for conservatives, why can’t Texas do something like that? Except, perhaps, that if the tests were serious, the parents (and local politicians) would object. Perhaps the Common Core was an attempt? Why hasn’t it worked? Should it be replaced?

Finally, what appears to me to be a no-brainer. In schools with large numbers kids whose home language is,e.g., Spanish, why not offer the Spanish equivalent of an English literature course. Teach the students to handle their home language at an educated level. I don’t mean bi-lingual education, but I do mean that we should value literacy in a foreign language (perhaps our worst area of scholastic failure) and we should seize the golden opportunity that these children present. Of course, others could take the course as well — presuming that the ordinary Spanish (or French, or Vietnamese, or what-you-will) primary and secondary school offerings are capable of bringing students up the the necessary level for such studies.

#24 Comment By Logan On March 17, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

No real news here as commenters have already identified the two mastodons in the room–the deterioration of family parenting and immigration (legal and illegal.) The focus of schools is increasingly on feeding, daycare, healthcare, and less on actual teaching/learning. In the six Texas urban areas mentioned, immigrant children make up 1/3 to in some cases 1/2 of school enrollment. The results are devastating and misguided bilingual education serves only to retard assimilation and slow learning.

#25 Comment By ata777 On March 18, 2017 @ 8:48 am

An admirable idea, but only a small part of the equation. The biggest part? De-unionization of the system. As long as teachers can be protected from accountability AND get tenure, there is no hope.

#26 Comment By Noirswann On March 18, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

Uncle Billy got it right. ParentS have the duty to educate their children. That means spending time helping them learn and enjoy watching them learn. They see it and absorb it even if at first they whine. Money would be better spent paying parents for student As and Bs. Just watch Joe-six packs kid improve!

#27 Comment By samuel johnston On March 18, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

Abolish all undergraduate schools of education, and move teaching programs to graduate schools, which only accept applicants who are graduates of generally accepted academic programs.